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camp lejeune water contamination study

Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Study: What Has Been Revealed?

Did you serve or work at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s or earlier? If so, sadly, you may have been exposed to dangerous chemicals.

But it’s better to be aware of your health risks than not to know. That way, you can make informed choices about your medical care today and in the future.

You should start by learning more about the Camp Lejeune water contamination study. We’ll tell you where investigators found the heaviest concentration of pollutants.

We’ll also talk about which chemicals were involved. And we’ll show you how to get legal assistance to obtain compensation for your experience.

A Brief Overview of Camp Lejeune’s Contamination

In the early 1980s, an investigation revealed dangerous water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The water at the North Carolina Marine Corps Base was home to several toxins. The contamination and research centered on two water systems, Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point.

Trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and other dangerous chemicals had infiltrated the base’s water supply. The barracks and administrative buildings were affected. But so were the hospital, houses, schools, and recreational facilities. 

Contamination likely affected those living on base for years and those there only temporarily for training. The number of possibly infected individuals generally rose as the camp grew.

To help the thousands possibly affected, Congress passed the Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012. The Veterans Administration guarantees free care to anyone diagnosed with specific conditions.

The health issues include leukemia, Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and bladder cancer. Gender-specific illnesses include female infertility and miscarriage. You must have spent at least 30 days in service at the camp from August 1, 1953, to December 31, 1987. 

How Were You Likely Exposed to Toxic Substances?

Exposure to contaminants differed greatly depending upon where you lived on base. Specifically, it’s crucial to know which Camp Lejeune water system supplied your home and workspace. Not all water systems on base were found to be contaminated. 

It is important to remember that two water systems, Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point, were involved. But those two systems supplied water throughout the base. That means that it was possible for people to encounter contamination at different venues on a typical day.

A person could live in a house supplied by a healthy water system but work in an administrative office with a contaminated water system. Exposure could also come from using some base recreational facilities.

The most apparent means of exposure to water contaminants is through drinking. But exposure can also occur from eating, breathing, and contact with the skin.

The contamination threat may have begun for some people with an early morning shower. The danger may have continued thanks to the water used in coffee. Then exposure may have remained throughout the day.

For example, one person may have rinsed their hands in the restroom of their administrative building. Meanwhile, another person drank water after exercising at one of the sports facilities.

Water Contamination Levels Fluctuated Often

The level of contamination varied due to the nature of the camp’s water supply. A freshwater aquifer fills local wells. Some of the wells were contaminated, but others were safe.

Water did not come from all the wells all the time. The wells cycled in and out of use. Depending on which wells were supplying water determined the level of contamination at that time.

The water in the wells then traveled to treatment facilities. There it underwent typical refinement.

However, the process wasn’t designed to remove high amounts of powerful toxic chemicals. The water was softened, chlorinated, and fluorinated.

Next, the treated water flowed into reservoirs and tanks. And from there, the water traveled to the various buildings on the base.

Why Was Camp Lejeune’s Water Easily Polluted?

Camp Lejeune’s underground aquifer was vulnerable because of the chemicals involved. Scientists refer to them as dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs).

They are so thick that they can sink deep into the earth when poured onto the ground. This scenario is what investigators conclude happened at the base, with the DNAPLs penetrating all the way to the aquifer.

DNAPLs will break down at varying speeds in different types of soil. It also makes a difference if the DNAPLs become mixed with other chemicals.

Another factor is whether the compounds encounter specific underground microorganisms. But overall, DNAPLs can dissolve so slowly that they can actively contaminate groundwater for decades.

What Caused Contamination of Tarawa Terrace?

The Tarawa Terrace system was contaminated mainly by PCE, a popular solvent in the dry cleaning industry. The investigation found that an off-base improperly disposed of the chemical for years. But contamination also occurred from on-base sources.

Secondary contaminants were TCE, dichloroethylene, benzene, toluene, and vinyl chloride. When PCE begins breaking down, TCE, DCE, and vinyl chloride can occur.

How Powerful was the Tarawa Exposure?

How much exposure did users of the Tarawa Terrace water supply have? Investigators looked at the period from November 1957 until 1985.

They estimated the concentration of PCE that residents were exposed to was exceptionally high. It was well above the maximum limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set.

However, researchers can’t determine the exposure level with a high degree of accuracy because too many factors are involved. First, there is little-to-no available data for the camp’s initial three decades.

There is also uncertainty over the specific usage of each well. And the computer model used to reach the exposure estimate omitted DNAPLs.

What Caused Contamination of Hadnot Point?

The Hadnot Point water system’s pollutants were primarily TCE and DCE. But also present were PCE, methylene chloride, and vinyl chloride.

There were several sources of contamination for Hadnot Point. So, investigators think other pollutants may also have been in the water at Camp Lejeune. But when researchers analyzed water samples in the 1980s, they didn’t screen for these other contaminants linked to fuels and metals.

Several contamination sources had been users of industrial chemicals. For example, there was the camp’s original trash dump, an on-base dry cleaner, a fuel tank sludge site, a burn dump, and a liquid disposal area. There was also an open storage pit, an industrial fly ash dump, a drum dump, a transformer storage lot, and a general use industrial space.

What Scientific Research Did Investigators Review?

The committee reviewed four categories of studies to get an overview of the health problems connected to TCE and PCE exposure. One group of studies examined the effect of solvents. It looked at communities, workplaces, and industrial settings. Those studies analyzed whether increased exposure raises the risk of developing health problems.

Another category was research studies focused on residential water supplies contaminated by solvents. Investigators included this category because of Camp Lejeune’s housing.

The on-base living conditions of military bases resemble those of civilian communities. Therefore civilian residential studies could have relevance for understanding the Camp Lejeune situation.

The third type of study concentrated on the effects of TCE and PCE on humans and animals. This group of studies used the results of animal laboratory tests. The studies then compared the lab findings with the suspected contamination levels of humans on the base.

And the fourth group of studies targeted only workers and residents at Camp Lejeune. Specifically, these studies looked at the effect of exposure to contaminants on children. The length of pregnancy and the size and weight of the newborn were the focuses of the study.

However, a mistake came to light sometime after the study was over. Researchers had wrongly identified one residential area as receiving safe water. It had, however, received contaminated water for several years. So new data will have to be used to reanalyze the study.

What Were the Major Chemicals Causing Contamination?

Multiple harmful chemicals were found in the groundwater of Camp Lejeune. But a few are of more significant concern due to their abundance and toxicity. These include benzene, PCE and its related substances, and vinyl chloride.


Benzene is in petroleum and coal, but since the mid-20th century, most benzene has come from petroleum. For years, its strength as a dissolving agent made it a primary ingredient in ordinary over-the-counter products. You’ve probably used it in a spot remover or paint stripper.

It was also popular as an industrial solvent until scientists understood its danger to humans. But benzene remains a significant player in specific industrial settings.

Previously, benzene made up a small but significant percentage of gasoline used in automobiles. Benzene offered an inexpensive way to reduce engine knocking by upping gasoline’s octane level. 

But the American Petroleum Institute said as far back as 1948 that benzene is so dangerous that the only safe percentage to use in gasoline is 0%. Today, the U.S. limits the amount of benzene allowed in gasoline to 0.62%.

When a substitute for benzene is needed, one of its primary replacements is methylbenzene, better known as toluene. Toluene also presents health concerns, but its toxicity is considered less than that of benzene. You can find toluene used in various ways, including as a fuel additive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists benzene as a cancer-causing agent. The chemical quickly absorbs into the body.

Exposure occurs through breathing, eating and drinking, or touching polluted substances. Once in the body, it can travel to major organs, such as the liver, lungs, kidney, brain, and heart.


PCE is also known as tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene. It’s a workhorse in the drycleaning industry. PCE is an excellent solvent for clothing stains. It’s also nonflammable, making it safe around the heat used in a drycleaning establishment.

Elsewhere it’s a popular industrial chemical for removing grease from metal. You can also find it in consumer shelf products such as paint strippers.

According to the EPA, PCE is a probable carcinogen that the body absorbs through physical contact and breathing. Most PCE is airborne, with the remainder primarily found in water.

Once PCE is poured out or spilled on the soil, it is challenging to remove. It doesn’t remain on the surface. It has enough density to descend below the level of underground water sources. 

As PCE begins to degrade, it still remains a health risk. It can degrade into other contaminants, such as TCE, DCE, and vinyl chloride.

The breakdown is due to underground microorganisms that feast on the chemicals, causing the decay. But scientists don’t fully understand the biological process. So, they can’t be specific about its effectiveness against PCE or its timeline. 

Therefore, investigators had to select a theoretical PCE decay rate. Then they had to assume that all the PCE on the site was experiencing the same rate.

This introduces a high level of conjecture. That means that any numbers on the concentration in an aquifer of minor contaminants derived from PCE are only rough estimates.

Vinyl Chloride

Like so many other industrial compounds, vinyl chloride results from refining petroleum. Vinyl chloride is too toxic to have a practical use by itself as a final product. Instead, it’s used in small amounts or to create other materials. 

For example, your car seats may contain small percentages of the chemical. Industries use vinyl chloride to create PVC (polymer polyvinyl chloride), a popular and widely-used form of plastic. 

PVC is far safer than vinyl chloride. For example, vinyl chloride represents a health danger if it comes in contact with your drinking water. But your modern house or apartment probably uses PVC pipes.

Until vinyl chloride’s toxicity was better known, it appeared in several products. Disturbingly, it was a propellant for consumer aerosol spray bottles. Medical facilities gave it to patients as breathable anesthesia. It also served as a refrigerant.

Vinyl chloride is a gas that poses its most significant threat to humans through inhalation. Facilities producing vinyl chloride will likely have surrounding air with higher-than-normal gas levels. 

When vinyl chloride invades a water system, it can also pollute the air inside a home. As residents turn on their faucets, showerheads, and washing machines, vinyl chloride vapors float free.

The National Cancer Institute recognizes exposure to vinyl chloride as a serious health risk. It increases the chances of liver, brain, and lung cancers, along with lymphoma and leukemia.

Why Assessing Environmental Contamination Exposure is Challenging 

Studies of environmental contamination look at a toxin’s access to humans. Scientists want to determine to what degree a person was exposed to the contaminant.

They also want to know how often they were in contact, how long the exposure lasted, and the rate or dosage of exposure. The answers will conceivably indicate a probability of an adverse health outcome.

But exposure assessment is challenging due to the staggering number of variables involved. Analyzing the possible exposure of a population requires considering differences in human behavior. 

Consider a new mother. She may come into contact with contaminated water more often and for more extended periods than her neighbor of the same age and gender. Taking care of a newborn requires regular bathing of the child and frequent laundry of clothing and bedding.

Toddlers and young children may spend hot summer days running through a lawn sprinkler or playing in a backyard swimming pool. Likewise, backyard gardeners expose themselves to contaminated water when regularly watering their plants. Other typical home activities that could increase exposure include washing the car and the family dog.

The level of exposure would also depend upon the length of time a person spent on base. One family may have spent several years there, while another family received a transfer after only months. Also, some personnel may have relocated within the base, moving from a contaminated water system to a healthy system or vice versa.

Understanding the Camp Lejeune Water System

Hadnot Point was the original water system serving the family housing area in 1943. They built the Tarawa Terrace housing area in 1952, the Marine Corps Air Station in 1961, and additional housing in the 1970s.

Historically, Camp Lejeune has relied on four primary water systems–Tarawa Terrace, Hadnot Point, Marine Corps Air Station, and Holcombe Boulevard. However, there are also smaller systems, such as Onslow Beach, Courthouse Bay, Rifle Range, and Camp Johnson.

A set of wells serviced each system. Water from a group of wells converged and mixed at the treatment plant before being pumped to the base. 

Poor Record Keeping

Detailed pumping schedules for the entire period of contamination aren’t available. The lack of data prevents more accurate computer modeling of the contamination and its spread.

Investigators also had to work without records of the overall water quality from the 1940s until the 1980s. There’s a lack of reliable and extensive documentation of how Camp Lejeune treated its water. That information would offer an idea of how contaminated the water remained upon leaving the treatment facilities.

According to the American Water Works Association, the treatment at the Camp Lejeune water plants was routine. It would have had differing success rates against the type of contaminants found in the water.

For example, one of the processes involved lime softening. Experts think it could only do a poor to fair job against chemicals that easily become airborne. 

The plants would fair better against other chemicals and metals except for chromium. But there’s no way to know the actual success rate of the plants.

Tarawa Terrace History

Tarawa Terrance went online in 1952 with seven wells. Then, additional wells became part of Tarawa Terrace over the water system’s lifetime. But through the years, the camp removed some wells from the system or shut them down. Often the reasons were unrelated to the eventual investigation of widespread contamination.  

Authorities began finding proof of contaminated underground water in the early to mid-1980s. The polluted wells then went offline from the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point systems. Two significant contributors to Tarawa Terrace’s water toxicity closed on February 8, 1985.

Complicating matters is the practice of one water system supplying another system. For example, there is evidence that, at times, Hadnot Point sent water to Holcombe Boulevard.

Hadnot Point History

The Hadnot Point water system dates back to 1943 and has included around 100 wells. However, all 100 wells never operated simultaneously.

What little data there is regarding the Hadnot Point well cycling schedule date from late 1984 to early 1985. It shows that, on average, 16 wells went online each day. 

This cycling method would result in a rise and fall of water contamination levels throughout any given day. The fluctuation was inevitable as water from contaminated wells and healthy wells mixed. 

For example, the volume of contamination might be higher, say in the morning. The overall demand for water is greater because most people are showering and preparing breakfast. 

Then as the demand for water went down, the contamination level might drop. Why? Because there’s a chance that one or more of the wells that went offline was contaminated. 

Tarawa Terrace: Discovering the Severity of the Contamination

In 1985, an analysis found the ABC One-Hour Cleaners site contained an extremely high concentration of PCE. Researchers were certain that it was the primary source of contamination for Tarawa Terrace. The cleaner had used PCE since 1953, allowing its routine spillage to flow into the floor drain and the septic system. 

But there was additional contamination. The cleaners also had a dangerous disposal method until the 80s.

For example, used leftover PCE was filtered and distilled. They then used the resultant sludge to fill potholes in an alley near the cleaner. In 1989, federal authorities officially listed the site of the former cleaners as a hazardous waste site.

In 1986, inspectors detected a strong gasoline smell during a routine check of a well. Fortunately, the well was not in use.

Further investigation showed that the gasoline odor came from leaks and spills. A dozen underground storage tanks associated with the Tarawa Terrace shopping center had failed.

Investigators believe the leaks began as early as the 1950s. In 1985, a tank’s failure released 4,400 gallons of gasoline. And in 1987, researchers estimated over two feet o gasoline to be floating above the water table.

After 1990, authorities examined other sources of contamination. These included above-ground petroleum storage tanks and filling stations. By the time of the investigation, the tanks were already over 30 years old and, in some cases, possibly over 40.

Regrettably, non-residential sites serviced by the Tarawa Terrace system included early education buildings. The Tarawa Terrace Elementary School and the Tarawa Terrace daycare received tainted water.

Hadnot Point: Discovering the Severity of the Contamination

The source of contamination for Hadnot Point was not as simple to designate. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t suspects. It was quite the opposite. 

There were numerous locations at the base where dangerous chemicals were routinely used and discarded. The Hadnot Point system contained much greater contamination than the Tarawa Terrace system. So investigators had a bigger challenge reconstructing the contamination history of Hadnot Point. 

One of the Hadnot Point contamination sources was an industrial area that had housed as many as 75 buildings since the 1940s. There were shops for painting, printing, and maintenance. There was also a steam generation plant and refueling stations.

A couple of open storage areas kept toxic chemicals such as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. An artillery unit used another location to discard unwanted petroleum and lubricants. People simply dumped the items onto the surface of the ground.

The base also contained a burn dump covering 23 acres. Solid waste material such as oil-based paint was burned there from 1946 to 1971. 

The base also had its dry cleaners. Like the off-base dry cleaners, the on-base business was also a source of contamination. Its underground storage tanks were in place in the 1940s and remained until 1996. 

A later investigation found that in 2005 there was contamination of groundwater 50 ft below the surface. And a contamination plume had spread out 500 ft in one direction.

Authorities investigated the camp’s original dump in 1998. The shallow groundwater had high concentrations of contaminants. Present were chromium, aluminum, nickel, arsenic, lead, and vanadium.

In the Hadnot Point-Holcomb Boulevard system, non-military sites likely receiving contaminated water included Russell School, the old high school/middle school, Berkeley Manor Elementary School, Stonestreet Elementary School, and Midway Park Elementary School. There was also the base hospital.

Contamination Through the Air

Airborne chemicals present an exposure risk in ways most people would not consider. For example, most people realize washing their hands or taking a shower are risk factors for absorbing chemicals. 

But some toxic substances transported by water also easily escape into the air. These are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are organic chemicals that become vapor under typical indoor conditions.

Therefore, inhaling them is possible if you’re standing near a water source such as the faucet, shower, or toilet. Research shows that even when the concentration of VOCs in a room is below the level of the federal health standard, they can still pose a health risk to vulnerable individuals. VOCs react to ozone to create by-products that can aggravate existing medical issues for sensitive people.

Also, investigators consider it plausible that buildings on the base were contaminated by vapor from shallow groundwater entering homes, administrative buildings, schools, and other structures. Airborne particles would also escape from the various dump sites on base. The wind would then transport the particles far from the release site.

Was Anyone Especially Vulnerable to the Contamination?

Investigators quoted a report from the National Research Council showing that during early childhood development, a person may be particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of chemicals. It’s believed that there is greater vulnerability because the organs are still in their developmental stage and executing complex procedures from the DNA.

On July 7, 2022, the CDC released a study showing a link between Camp Lejeune’s water pollution and poor health. Children were more likely to have serious medical issues. The conditions include congenital disabilities such as spina bifida and cancer, including leukemia. The study, performed by the Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry, looked at the 12,598 births on base from 1968 to 1985.

Researchers independently confirmed 52 cases of either congenital disabilities or cancer. However, the children’s parents self-reported a total of 106 incidents.

The elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with serious underlying health issues are also of particular concern. But you don’t need to be in this group to suffer from toxic exposure. Researchers are interested in talking with everyone.

Understanding the health effects of the camp’s contamination will take time. Your medical history may add important pieces to the puzzle.

Don’t discount your experience. The Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Act assures you of your right to voice your concerns if you came into contact with the camp’s toxic chemicals. There are attorneys who will help you tell your story.

Getting Legal Help After the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Study

The evidence is clear that if you spent time at Camp Lejeune through the mid-1980s, you likely were exposed to dangerous chemicals. The question is what to do if you’re now battling health issues related to your exposure.

Frankly, you need experienced legal help. The Overholt Law Firm, PC, specializes in winning class action cases and getting our clients the compensation they deserve.

You’ve served your country. And the Camp Lejeune water contamination study makes it clear that now you deserve some help from your country. 

Contact our firm today. We want to begin immediately working on your claim.

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